The Great Coffee Conversation

"How do we advance the quality, appreciation and ethics behind a beverage that still functions largely as a bulk resource?"

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[Photos: Liz Clayton]

When the uberlords of coffee-slinging meet to debate, what kinds of hijinks transpire? Cups of hot coffee tossed angrily amidst bickering over seasonality, direct trade, latte sizes and espresso to go?

Alas, nothing quite so scandalous (or scalding) went down last week at the Great Coffee Debate, a broad-reaching seminar hosted by Illycaffè and the International Culinary Institute in New York City. Drawing together luminaries from all angles of the industry—roasters, scholar-scientists...hoteliers?—the forum sought to raise pertinent issues about the direction of coffee.

So Where Is This Brown Drink Going, Exactly?

coffeedebate (3 of 4).jpgThe first session sought to address the nuts and bolts of coffee's growth and potential, both in flavor and trade; the second, more industrial panel, aimed itself more towards the "how to serve 300 people at a trade conference with the most sophisticated thermal urn" set. Slow-bar by-the-cup philosophy this was decidedly not.

And, indeed, this divide in spirit raises one of coffee's biggest questions: how do we advance the quality, appreciation and ethics behind a beverage that still functions largely as a bulk resource, a caffeine delivery vehicle, and a catering conundrum?

Fittingly, International Culinary Institute business partner and conference partner Illy is one company that, perhaps more than any other, straddles all those lines. A longtime leader in coffee science, Illy tends to drive its research towards preparation, consistency and flavor consistency—worthy goals, but ones that can strain under the large-market, international trade appeal the company reaches for.

Famous for a pressurization technique that can, in theory, keep ground coffee tasting not only fresh for months or years, but actually "forces...aroma compounds back into the coffee so they can be released in the cup", Illy makes big claims about science's ability to manipulate (and improve!) natural flavor that, unsurprisingly, run antithetical to a large portion of the specialty coffee industry's current romance with seasonality and freshness. Illy has brought along a barista-scholar as well, Giorgio Milos, to prepare espresso beverages alongside the thermal carafe of coffee labeled "regular". Hmmm....

coffeedebate (4 of 4).jpgThe morning's "From Farm to Roaster" panel brought together a cadre of industry leaders to discuss the essentials of coffee production and commerce. These included Don Schoenholt, president of NYC pillar Gillies Coffee; Jonathan Rubenstein, owner of Joe, James Freeman, owner of Blue Bottle Coffee Co.; Doug Zell, CEO of Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea, and Andrea Illy, chairman of Illycaffè.

Moderator Corby Kummer led off with the evolution of coffee business models, to remove middlemen and importers, or as he put it, "small shops going and making friends with" actual coffee growers. Zell, whose company trademarked their model of business known as Direct Trade, and operates with farmers directly in nearly two dozen countries. stressed concerns that coffee's price points are not growing in stride with the industry's attempts to elevate coffee.

Rubenstein addressed the end consumer level, where efforts to raise coffee from a "caffeine injection" continue to challenge retailers striving to deliver and emphasize the real value of what they're selling, whether by posting maps, offering classes, delivering careful tasting notes or everything else.

We touch on the idea of seasonality, once eschewed in favor of consistent tasting blended coffees, has grown—but where is the debate here? The companies represented each bring their own distinct philosophy to the landscape of coffee—to broadly generalize, we could classify Illy as scientific/consistency minded, Joe as cafe/culinary minded, Blue Bottle as consistency/retail innovation minded, Intelligentsia as sourcing/innovation minded, and Gillies as the evolving, super-knowledgeable old school. Shouldn't these guys be, at some point... politely disagreeing?

Andrea Illy brings the focus back to changing drinkers' viewpoints via components and science, and shakes up no one when he suggests we "forget about" robusta in coffee blends. "Its only positive characteristic is high body," says Illy of the strain. "Let's go and have some high body through different ways."

coffeedebate (2 of 4).jpgOnly Doug Zell dares toward debate here, challenging Illy on their "different yet constant" philosophy that disregards ideas of seasonality and rather warehouses coffees for months if not years. Illy does not respond, though Blue Bottle's Freeman suggests that putting a consistent house style in front of the idea of origin- or seasonal-specific offerings is a form of "artistic constraint".

And perhaps the debate format itself is a mode of "artistic constraint": it can be as much of a challenge to try to inspire new thinking among the converted as it is among the caffeine-injectee-seeking masses, and to have a commercially sponsored philosophical-culinary discussion is a tricky task indeed. But what it does do is remind us—as romantically minded, taste-driven and freshness-entranced as we can be—of the real bottom lines that exist, not simply in the industries working with coffee in the first world, but all the way down the chain to growing. We talk a lot in coffee about farmers and fairness, but it's far less sexy to address the functional needs, and artistic or un artistic constraints of the idealistic companies trying to make these long-term changes. Can science and inspiration make it happen? Will New York City be the kind of place where understanding, and big change, can take hold? Let's continue to be passionate and challenging — and open to debate — and find out.